Venkat answers urgent knocks on the door to his flat one evening to find two insolent young men claiming to have business with his daughter Rekha. He deals with them shortly, only to find his quiet, middle-class life upended by a bewildering set of events over the next few days.
Even as Venkat is hurled into a world of street gangs and murky journalism, we see a parallel narrative unfold of a betrayal and disappearance from long ago. Could there be a connection? Set over four mostly sleepless days, we see Venkat lose grasp of the narrative even as he loses grasp of his wife and daughter.
Exquisitely translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, “Sakina’s Kiss” is a delicate, precise meditation on the persistence of old biases―and a rattled masculinity―in India’s changing social and political landscape. Ingeniously crafted, Vivek Shanbhag interrogates the space between truth and perception in this unforgettable foray into the minefield of family life.
Disclaimer: I don’t think this book was for me, but it might be for you. Review may contain tiny spoilers.
The story is told in first person by Venkat a middle-class patriarchal guy. His mentality and opinions are something that might be known to a lot of brown households. Fragile ego, the need to have power over women, inability to be of any help to the household, and the constant fear for the women in their lives.
His character arc though is something that surprised me, it isn’t unbelievable. You would expect a person like him to behave the way he does. The author does a good job at mapping his journey. He is selfish, spineless, and clueless about what his wife (Viji) and daughter (Rekha) want. At some point, this behaviour is taken to a peak.
There are several incidents where the way he thinks is super intolerable and creepy. I mean imagine if you can get into the head of a guy when he is having sex and know exactly what he is thinking. Quite uncomfortable, right? Well, we get to see it in this book, thankfully, just once. One of the lowest points was when he said that some things are only good for the first time in reference to his sex with his wife.
Venkat is quite disappointed in his life right from the beginning. He makes his married life sound like a burden quite soon after the honeymoon. Even when they have a pretty decent life, and Viji is working, taking care of their daughter, and cooking (because Venkat makes it clear that he can’t), he makes it sound like he is the one suffering somehow. This part of his life sounds like he is just forced into a life that he didn’t want, which he clearly did. They face the problems that every middle-class Indian household would have come across. But, he makes such a big deal that it is painful to read.
By page 45, I was left with a little hope about the book. However, the story I predicted it to be was far from what it turned out to be. It’s good to be unpredictable, but I feel it was taken a bit too far. The book was supposed to be a thriller, rather psychological thriller, but it ends up being a psychological stream-of-consciousness (or train-of-thought) story. And, this is not bad. I have read a few other books in this genre, but this was not my expectation after reading the blurb, which caused me to be disappointed with the overall mapping of the story.
Viji and Rekha are proudly feminist women. However, Venkat is just feminist enough that would save him arguments at his home. Venkat goes as far as to say that he avoids getting into discussions about feminism and liberalism because “it is like hot ghee in the mouth – you can’t spit it and you can’t swallow it.” He can’t take anyone’s (a woman’s) opinion and definitely not when they don’t agree with what he has to say and is constantly fed with chauvinist ideas by his social group. Now since the book is from Venkat’s perspective, feminism and “rebellion” is treated as something uncultured. In his narrative, he conveniently showcases his wife as adamant, when she only wants the best for the family and his daughter as a stupid rebel who doesn’t know anything.
He is not an equal partner for his wife and certainly not a good father. His constant desire to control and dominate the two women is highlighted throughout the book. The duo decides to keep stuff from him and not include him in certain discussions because they consider him too immature to handle a certain topic or a situation. This, I believe is a fair response to his antics, but it also keeps the reader in the dark since the book is from Venkat’s perspective. We only know what Venkat knows and what he thinks. Everything else is an extension of his opinions, which I don’t trust at this point.
Now, we are introduced to several other characters throughout the story. But, two that play an important role are Ramanan and Suresh. I don’t want to give spoilers to the story, but Venkat quite easily finds a way to blame the two men for the disappearance of his daughter and her rebellious behaviour when she hasn’t even met one of those, which is so stupid!
A supposedly funny scene is that Ramana, who has gone to the city to study, has such bad handwriting that the narrator has to spend ten pages talking about how the entire family had to work on decoding it. Seems illogical and exaggerated. However, this is the place that introduces the title of the book, which is not related to the story of the book in any shape or form.
My ultimate questions at the end of this book were: What emotion does it evoke in readers? What is the character arc? What is the takeaway from the book?
And, the answer I have come to is this: The book made me cringe and feel uncomfortable way too many times. There were a few funny or warm moments, but they were either too short-lived or dragged unnecessarily. The book is like shadowing a person for four days. You learn about them, you learn about their history and what goes on in their minds (and like I said, it’s not comfortable; it’s dark in there). And, this book should not be taken for anything more than that. The person might share some interesting anecdotes, and you might learn why they are the way they are or just what kind of person they are.
To derive values or learnings, draw parallels in your own life from this book, or even find closure to the characters’ story is up to you. I was able to relate to the characters or see how someone similar exists in my life, several times through the story. But, that was it.
The writing style is beautiful. It’s simple and easy to get into. The pacing and transition between the past and present was flawless. But, story-wise, I feel there could have been a stronger arc. There were multiple plot lines, all let loose at the end. It could have been made into a fine story, but that was not the intention of the author, who just wanted to introduce us to a patriarchal mindset.
And, this makes me wonder: Why would I want to know about a guy who is far from interested in having a conversation about feminism? Why should I be invested in knowing what he thinks about when he looks at his daughter being rebellious or when having sex with his wife? And, my conclusion is that I don’t really care about Venkat or about what he thinks.
Maybe someone out there does. If you do, then do check out this book.